Alan, or “Papa,” Kwan, would have enjoyed the farewell they threw for him on Feb. 4, six days after his death. It was a karaoke party at Shanghai Restaurant — which he opened in 1971, the first Chinese restaurant on Somerset Street, inaugurating what would eventually become Chinatown.
He and his wife, Nancy, or “Mama,” would have sat side-by-side at the table farthest from the door, as they did regularly since a debilitating stroke partially paralyzed him in 1994. Apart from affording them an unobstructed view of the entire restaurant, the seats were, conveniently, closest to the washroom, which also made it a good spot to greet the restaurant’s clientele, a great many of whom called the Kwans and their eight children friends.
There were very few Chinese families in Ottawa in 1950 when Nancy Chow, then just 12, arrived with her parents. Eight years later, she was sent to Hong Kong, where, nerve-wracked, she met Alan, her husband-to-be. He was a teacher, outgoing, athletic, humorous and musical — he performed with the ship’s band on the newly-married couple’s journey to Ottawa via San Francisco.
In Ottawa, he worked as a bartender at Cathay Restaurant on Albert Street — Ottawa’s original Chinatown — while Nancy took in laundry at their Nepean Street home (the same house where Beckta restaurant originally opened) and grew bean sprouts in pots and bathtubs in their basement, selling the sprouts to local restaurants.
They started a family, beginning with Shirl in 1959, followed each year or two by siblings Howard, David, Edward (better known as drag queen and karaoke host China Doll), Mabe, Helen, Rich and, finally, in 1974, Don. In 1968, the family moved to Fisher Heights, in Nepean.
Three years later, as high rents forced many of the Albert Street restaurants to close, Papa, along with his brother-in-law Bing Yee, opened the Shanghai on Somerset Street.
All of the children — Ed said they were latchkey kids growing up — worked in the restaurant at one point or another, and about half still do.
Helen remembers her father coming home from work in the wee hours and unwinding with a glass of crème de menthe and playing the organ or accordion. “It could be anything,” she said. “When the Saints Go Marching In … It used to wake us up, but we never complained. It was annoying, but it was also normal.
“He also did tai chi on the front lawn, without a shirt and wearing Pat Boone shoes.”
Papa also loved watching TV: CPAC in particular, and anything Bollywood. Additionally, his calligraphy was so good that he became the go-to person for wedding invitations, signs and even headstones.
Papa and Mama loved to socialize. In later years, they regularly attended seniors centre events, and loved when Ed, as China Doll, costumed them for Halloween and Christmas parties. If a contest was involved, said Ed, who once dressed his parents as Andy Warhol, they invariably finished first.
Papa Kwan loved Canada and being Canadian, and was also a prominent pioneer in Ottawa’s Chinese community, promoting Chinese culture and always lending a hand to newly arrived immigrants.
“He saw a need,” said Howard. “At that time, the social scene circled around the businesses, the restaurants, or a few associations. Those groups eventually formed the Chinese Community Association (of Ottawa), where he spent over 20 years as a board member, organizing events and helping immigrants settle.”
Among Papa’s accomplishments was helping with the founding of the Chinese embassy here in 1972, on St. Patrick Street, for which he was presented a lapel pin that he wore almost every day for the rest of his life. After, he was buried wearing the pin.
He was also buried with Howard’s Ottawa Dragon Boat Race Festival medal. Howard was instrumental in establishing the festival, in 1993, and credits his father for the inspiration. “I gave him (the medal) as a symbol of what he left behind, so he can have it to wear and admire forever.”
Papa also helped arrange an annual picnic, at Vincent Massey Park, for the Chinese community. There, busloads of children would surround him, in awe at his magic act and contortions. On Chinese New Year, he would dress up as the God of Fortune, and hand out tiny envelopes containing a candy or toy or quarter. He also emceed numerous events.
And while he enjoyed the spotlight, many of his deeds were quiet ones. Ed recalls a homeless Chinese woman whom Papa would regularly load up with food and warm water when he left work for the night.
“Then one day I found a bag of fresh fruit at the door and I knew it was from her.” The incident reminds Ed of how his father lived. “It’s not what you get in return. It’s what you give. It’s not about how much you have, but what you do with what you have.”
Largely through the influence of the children, but certainly with Papa and Mama’s encouragement, The Shanghai began to differentiate itself from other traditional Chinese restaurants, renovating to add a retro East-meets-West décor, with original contemporary, local art on the walls, fusion and other non-traditional dishes on the menu, as well as community-minded events, such as maker fairs, charity fundraisers and farmers’ and flea markets. And, of course, China Doll’s popular Saturday-night karaoke.
“It’s a part of what my father did with the community, with the restaurant,” said Howard. “We just took it further with our own style.
“It’s amazing how much he accomplished, and the number of lives he touched. He was our foundation, and a foundation for the whole community.”
Alan “Papa” Kwan died of natural causes on Jan. 29. He was in his 88th year. The number eight is the luckiest in Chinese culture, and 88 even more so, as it resembles the symbol for “double joy.”
A GoFundMe for Shanghai
On behalf of the Kwan family and in memory of Papa Kwan, local performer Angus Wright has started a GoFundMe page to refit the Shanghai Restaurant’s parking lot and purchase a portable stage, tents and other paraphernalia. After performing there regularly beginning last summer, Wright said he discovered the “many opportunities they’ve provided local artists, performers, comedians, and much more, and the number of charity fundraisers.
“They never brag about the things they do for everyone else, as Papa Kwan simply always lead by example … It’s a true community hub that loves its local Chinese community, but also the greater Ottawa community. Let’s continue Papa Kwan’s legacy by creating an outdoor fully accessible performance and gathering space, and hopefully also be able to make the indoor space even more accessible.”
Visit https://www.gofundme.com/papa-kwan-memorial-community-stage for more information.